There aren’t likely many people who find their life’s calling in the fifth grade.
David Watson did.
Back in the late 1950s, Watson’s fifth-grade teacher at Rye’s Midland School was the legendary Albert Cullum, a maverick who championed teaching Shakespeare in elementary schools.
In 1964, Cullum dreamed up a year-long Shakespeare festival to mark the bard’s 400th birthday. Watson, then 16, played Hamlet.
Cullum wrote the 1968 book, “Shake Hands with Shakespeare,” which included scripts from the canon, adapted for grade-schoolers.
“Having Mr. Cullum as a teacher was a great experience, life-changing,” says Watson, who lives in Rye Brook.
Cullum died in 2003, just after finishing the filming of the award-winning documentary, “A Touch of Greatness,” which chronicled those long-ago lessons at Midland School with footage shot in the ’60s.
Watson, too, was featured in the film, reflecting on those brushes with the bard.
All these years later, Watson continues to shake hands with Shakespeare — and all sorts of other theater.
As director of cultural events at Pace University, he oversees events at the Michael Shimmel Center for the Performing Arts, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, where, this week, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is in residence, presenting “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” in its only East Coast stop.
“It’s certainly the opposite of what they tell you in guidance counseling, which is 20 percent of the jobs haven’t been invented yet,” Watson says with a laugh. “This job has been around for at least 400 years: running a theater with Shakespeare in it.”
“The Merry Wives of Windsor” — with an all-London cast supplemented with local schoolchildren — marks the second year that Shakespeare’s Globe has called the Shimmel Center home. Watson hopes it is just the start of a long relationship, joking “we’re in year 2 of 50.”
Conrad Lynch, executive producer at the Globe, says the fit is a good one.
“It’s great to have a presence in New York,” Lynch says. “It’s lovely to come back to places you’ve been before, to build an audience here.”
This “Merry Wives,” played London’s Globe for six months and played Santa Monica for two weeks. After the Shimmel, it’s off to a brief tour of England before the holidays.
Then, it’s time to plan the next season at The Globe, and a trip back to the Shimmel Center.
The Globe isn’t the only Shakespeare on Watson’s calendar.
• In February, Theatre for a New Audience presents F. Murray Abraham as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice,” a role that Al Pacino brings to Broadway this week.
• In April, The Acting Company presents the New York premiere of its production of “The Comedy of Errors” in a run will end six days before the bard’s 446th birthday.
Watson also coordinates culture at Pace satellite campuses in Pleasantville, White Plains and Briarcliff.
At Briarcliff, Watson turned an old IBM lecture hall into the home of Hudson Stage, which last weekend opened a run of “Salvation,” starring Paul Carlin.
Watson has taken side roads along the way, working in the British film industry in connection with the Cannes Film Festival.
He ran Mamaroneck’s Emelin Theater from 1994 to 1998, helping to establish a tradition of bluegrass and family programming that continues there.
Watson also ran the International Society for the Performing Arts — a network of theatrical producers and presenters — and relocated the group’s headquarters to Rye.
At the close of the introduction to “Shake Hands with Shakespeare,” Albert Cullum wrote: “Your students will always remember taking part in a Shakespeare play and through creative drama you will give them a priceless gift — a lasting love of The Bard!”
Mission accomplished, Mr. Cullum.
Elementary, Mr. Watson.
“The Merry Wives of Windsor”
When: Through Nov. 7. 7:30 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays; 2 p.m., Wednesdays and Saturdays; 3 p.m., Sundays.
Tickets: $40 balcony; $75 orchestra.
Brush up your Cullum
Albert Cullum wrote several books, including the best-selling “The Geranium On The Windowsill Just Died But Teacher You Went Right On,” “Shake Hands With Shakespeare,” “Greek Tears and Roman Laughter,” “You Think Just Because You’re Big You’re Right” and “Push Back The Desks.”
The award-winning 2005 documentary, “A Touch of Greatness” — which includes David Watson — is still available at www.shopPBS.org
Top photo by Carucha L. Meuse/The Journal News: David Watson, director of cultural events for Pace University, is responsible for bringing Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to Pace’s Shimmel Center for the Arts.
Bottom photo by Rohanna Mertens/The Journal News: Alice (O’Connor) Terlizzi of Rye laughs with her fifth-grade teacher Albert Cullum at Midland School in Rye in 1999.